THE TEXT

The Life of Henry Fuckit
(1950 - 2015)

 

13   Conducted South

There were few white passengers and he had a whole compartment to himself. The initial excitement induced by the novelty of his situation had begun to dissolve not long after the train left Bulawayo. Now, halted at this siding, in a strange limbo of almost complete silence, the enormity of his undertaking was growing upon him. For a while a wave of panic filled him as he contemplated the vastness of the unknown future confronting him. Strong emotions welled up: fear for the cold unfriendly world into which he was stepping; nostalgia at the memory of his friends, mentors, Mrs R, even the boys busy about the house and in the kitchen - even that pig Dolf Welgemoed. Every detail that made up his life at Ingachini was now so dear to him. A heart-rending self-pity filled his eyes with tears and caught at his throat. He felt a strong urge to halt what he had set in motion and scurry back to the familiar safety of Ingachini. The coalescence of these feelings amounted to a brand-new experience that he intuitively recognised as being 'homesickness'. So, this is what it's like to feel homesick. Gee, but this is quite distinct and exceptional. There's nothing quite like it. He thought of his poor tormented mother who had suffered intensely from this same ailment. He became so wrapped in the contemplation and savouring of his newfound emotion that, before he knew it, it had passed, and he realised, almost ruefully, that he no longer felt homesick.

Up front there was a hiss and a toot and a gentle shudder ran through the carriage. Very slowly the view through the window was sliding sideways and he was on his way again. It was already well past noon and in a few hours they would cross the border into Botswana.

He became aware of a voice out in the corridor and a few moments later there was a sharp rat-a-tat, the insertion of a master key, the turning of the latch and the rolling back of the door. This movement, from the rat to the end of the roll, was accomplished with a virtuoso flourish and there in the doorway, larger than life, stood the spitting image of Joseph Stalin.

"Kaartjies asseblief," he announced in a brisk business-like tone. "Tickets please." A thickset powerful man of about forty years of age, he was dressed in the navy blue uniform of a senior conductor on the South African Railways. His black shoes shone, his trousers looked freshly pressed with knife-edge creases, his jacket fitted him snugly and his cuffs and collar were snowy white. A silver fob-chain drooped across his abdomen to the left pocket of his waistcoat and was presumably connected to a chrome-plated whistle. The black silk tie with its gold coat of arms was tied at his throat in a sensuously plump knot. His chin was smooth and shiny whilst the great black moustache luxuriated rankly upon his upper lip. His eyes were small and close-set but glinted with a domineering fierceness. When he removed his peaked cap his thick, neatly clipped raven hair crowded his forehead. Henry was pleased to be acquainted with such a vigorous specimen.

"I see you're travelling to Cape Town, Mr O'Riley," the conductor said in a strong South African accent as he read the details on the piece of paper. "The train's empty now but at Jo'burg it will fill up and you'll have to share. You must fill in this form and have your passport ready. We will get to Plumtree and the Botswana border in about an hour."

Henry took the form and glanced at it nervously. This was the first official document he had ever been required to complete. Surname, first names, date and place of birth - straightforward enough. But sex? Was he expected to disclose how frequently he masturbated? What business was that of theirs? The conductor noticed the worried look clouding Henry's face and promised to help him once he had attended to the other passengers. Meanwhile Henry was to tackle the easy stuff on his own.

Braithwaite had skilfully replaced MARY ELIZABETH with HENRY FUCKIT, altered the year of birth from '24 to '50 and substituted the photograph. The repining Englishwoman's countenance was supplanted by the unshaven visage of her son. Henry admired the sleight of hand. Then for the first time he took the trouble to read the copperplate message inside the cover. Goodness gracious me! He became indignant. This was ridiculous. Was it not absolutely plain that he, a British Citizen, was to be allowed to pass freely without let or hindrance? Why should he be troubled with these irksome questions, prying into the innermost sanctum of his private life? Had Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State not made it unequivocally clear that he was to be afforded such assistance and protection as may be necessary?

As the conductor was rolling back the door for the second time he was waylaid in the corridor. "Meneer Ponchielli!" Henry heard the voice calling above the clackety-clack of wheels leaping the gap from one length of rail to the next. "Meneer Ponchielli! Asseblief meneer. The chef says you must come quick. Daar's 'n fokop met die spaghetti!"

"Alright, tell him I'm coming now-now." He put his head in and addressed Henry: "Sorry about this but I'll be back shortly. Five or ten minutes, that's all."

When he returned he looked pleased with himself. "That chef is doing just fine. He really takes his job seriously. Tonight you will taste the best pasta north of my wife's kitchen. Delizioso!" He pinched the air with thumb and forefinger and pursed his lips in a kiss of gastronomic delight.

"I heard that fellow call you Mr Ponchielli," said Henry, as the conductor slid behind the let-down table and faced him. "You must be of Italian extraction. Ponchielli is a famous name in opera." His guest's surprise was evident. He banged the table with his fist and shouted with laughter. Then he shook Henry's hand with enthusiastic vigour.

"I can't believe my ears. You know, you don't find many people who have heard of Amilcare Ponchielli. I am the grandson of the great musicista." He spoke with pride.

"It's a pleasure to make the acquaintance of a close relative of such a gifted musician. I have heard excerpts from La Gioconda on the BBC. Also I know that your grandfather taught Puccini and was a major influence on him."

"Your information is spot-on. This is amazing. You know, I am named after Puccini. Giacomo Ponchielli. But everybody calls me Jack. Except my wife." For a moment a look of doleful regret came into his eyes and his shoulders sagged. "She calls me Maestro. I wanted to be a great musician, maybe even the conductor of an orchestra. But instead I am the conductor of a passenger train. Yes, I know it's an absurdity; you can laugh if you like." Henry had indeed been unable to conceal his amusement. Jack Ponchielli sat up erect and the despondency left his face and his voice. "As my dear father always told me, you have to be realistic. Rather be a good railwayman than a bad musician. And I love this job: I meet many strange and wonderful people and the train is a special place. I am a romantic and I like to think of the train as a world entirely on its own, very separate and detached from the bigger world out there. On the train we are moving in another dimension and can be introspective and objective. But hey, we'll be in Plumtree in ten minutes. Where's that customs form of yours?"

The filling in of the form seemed a trifling thing when dealt with by the conductor. "You see," he explained, "you have to learn how the world works. When you're asked a question you must know what type of answer is being looked for. You've got to know who you're dealing with. Let's take a new form and start again." He began writing. At FUCKIT he raised his eyebrows but said nothing. Under 'Sex' he wrote MALE. "They just want to know if you're a man or a woman."

"But that's ridiculous. I ticked 'Mr'. If I was a woman would I be calling myself Mister?"

"'Purpose of Visit'. You've put TO AVOID MILITARY SERVICE AND TO SEE THE WORLD. They don't want you to say that. What they want you to say is VACATION. 'Period of Visit'. You've got WHO KNOWS? THE FUTURE IS A CLOSED BOOK… SIX WEEKS is what you put. You can always change your mind; they don't care. Are you getting the picture." He continued to scribble away and finished with a flourish. "Voila! The deed is done." He rose to his feet, adjusted his cap on his thick black hair and prepared to make his exit. "After dinner I will play my violin in the dining saloon. Tonight I am in the mood for Vivaldi. I hope you won't find my playing too bad. I like to think of the train moving slowly through the black night and the wild beasts and the Natives out there listening to the music as it passes."

During the night the train had crossed Botswana and entered South African territory. After breakfast of Maltabella porridge, bacon, sausage, tomato, fried egg, toast, marmalade and coffee, Henry returned to his compartment and resolved to pen a letter to Ingachini.

He addressed them collectively as 'My dear fellow-lunatics' and described how he had fallen out with Frikkie's father and the circumstances surrounding the interesting new acquaintance, Jack Ponchielli. For Mrs Rabinowitz he described the rather fine rendition of some of Vivaldi's early sonatas, and for Herr Friedemann he added a maliciously coded postscript. "PS Mein Lieblings-onkel, you may now send the schwein to market." This referred to Dolf Welgemoed. They had often spoken about how they would see to it that the hateful racist would be disposed of once Frikkie had flown the nest.

The Witwatersrand with its increasing concentration of humanity alarmed and overwhelmed Henry. He felt a sinking resignation as the train approached Johannesburg. Already in Pretoria people had embarked, intruding upon his privacy. Four men of his age were now crowding his compartment. He gathered they were on their way to Kimberley to start military training. Their young faces were coarse and unlovely to behold. Their eyes were cold and restless and filled with suspicion. There was something particularly mean and furtive about one of them, and Henry resolved to keep a close eye on his belongings.

As the train was pulling out of Johannesburg station he stood out in the corridor watching the rows of tracks. Then, passing before him was a stationary commuter train. It was filled to overflowing with black workers. As he looked into the faces not ten feet from his own he was horrified to see the expressions of those who met his eye. At best it was sullenness. But mostly it was naked hatred. A man with a thick scar running across his bald head and down to his right eye looked straight into Henry's face and then made an unmistakable gesture with his extended forefinger across his throat. Yissis, he thought, This is an infernal place inhabited by the damned. I only hope Cape Town is better.

He spent most of the remainder of the journey south stretched out on his upper bunk reading 'The Good Soldier Schweik'. It cheered him up and bolstered his conviction that the army would be a very bad place to find himself and that any situation remotely military should be avoided at all costs. With an almost full complement of passengers Jack Ponchielli was kept busy and it was only on the final morning, as the train descended from the plateau through the Hex River Mountains, that Henry again had a chance to converse with the conductor.

"Come and drink a cup of espresso with me in my compartment." He held up a steel thermos flask. "In another half hour or so I'll be busy right into Cape Town."

Henry followed him along the swaying corridors, and across the open steel catwalks, from coach to coach. The icy damp air blew in his face and tugged at his clothes, and he was aware that this was going to be a kind of climate very different to what he was used to. They reached the guard's van and stepped into the conductor's quarters.

The coffee was strong and bitter and the hot aroma filled the narrow cabin. He produced a bottle of brandy and two glasses like large thimbles. "This is to stoke the fire. Look at that snow. It's beautiful with the sunlight catching it." Barren black vineyards spread across a valley floor and mountains rose up high on either side. The peaks were coated with a thick dusting of white and he gazed in awe at his first sight of snow.

"So you'll be needing a place to stay? You know, my wife lets out rooms. It is a very big old house and this way we are able to live a better standard than is usual for a conductor on the railways. She is a good woman." He threw back the brandy. "Ahhh, that's better. Yes, some women would make a man wriggle like a worm if they owned a house that could bring in more money than their husband's salary. But not Costanza. We understand each other very well. There is one room that is vacant for another six weeks. When we get to Cape Town you can come and have a look and meet my wife and decide."

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